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Review: 'Amelia'

Biopic of Earhart's rise to fame is such a smooth ride the film lacks spark and edge.

By Peter RainerFilm critic of The Christian Science Monitor / October 23, 2009

This photo released by Fox Searchlight shows Hilary Swank as Amelia Earhart and Richard Gere as George Putnam in a scene from "Amelia."

Fox Searchlight,Ken Woroner/AP

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"Amelia" is an old-fashioned biopic that doesn't jibe with a newfangled world. Director Mira Nair's devotional take on legendary aviatrix Amelia Earhart, played by Hilary Swank, is almost completely lacking in edge, irony, humor, sparks. It's the movie equivalent of a mediocre young-adult novel about a famous historical personage.

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Even discounting all the conspiracy theories surrounding Earhart's midflight disappearance in the South Pacific in 1937, her life is far more interesting than this movie allows for. She is presented to us as a rambunctious Kansas girl who always dreamed of flying and rose to Lindbergh-like celebrity when she eventually became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean. Her fate unfolds seemingly magically – she's destined to soar the skies. (About the only transcendent thing in the movie are the cloud-borne aerial shots.)

Swank is a dead ringer for Earhart, which only makes the movie's deficiencies even more regrettable. It's impossible not to imagine how much better her performance might have been if the movie had been equal to her look. But Swank, freckled, with close-cropped hair, sporting an iffy Midwestern accent, is done in by Nair's reverential treatment. In particular, she's done in by the script (by Ron Bass and Anna Hamilton Phelan, based on two mammoth Earhart biographies), which force-feeds her such lines as "I want to be free to be a vagabond of the air," or, my favorite, "What do dreams know of boundaries?"

Among the many boundaries in "Amelia" is the insipid romance between Earhart and her publicist-husband George Putnam, played by Richard Gere with an old pro gravitas that doesn't do him any favors. Putnam, who published Lindbergh's autobiography and helped turn Earhart into a media sensation, is such a lap dog for love that you keep waiting for something horrible to happen to him. Maybe he'll turn into the Wolfman? But no, he's an ideal hubby all the way through (even though the marriage, in real life, was rockier). Even a purported affair between Earhart and aeronautics pioneer Gene Vidal (Ewan McGregor) is so toned-down as to be nonexistent. It's kissypoo erotics. (Yes, Gene Vidal was the father of Gore, who is well played as a young boy by William Cuddy.)

The portrayal of Putnam fits right in with the film's overall tone of groggy uplift. Whenever Nair has to fill us in on Earhart's rise to fame, she inserts documentary montages, newspaper headlines – all the paraphernalia of old-time movie-making. Why make a modern movie in this way? Nair isn't trying to comment on the times by being deliberately antiquated. Instead, she seems to be willing herself back in time to the good old days when American idols were portrayed as unblemished heroes.

But we've grown up from those so-called good old days, and our movies along with us. For most of us, that's a good thing. But perhaps Nair believes that heroism in our tabloid era has become degraded. If so, she overcorrected. "Amelia" is so pure in heart that it slides right off the screen. Grade: C- (Rated PG for some sensuality, language, thematic elements, and smoking.)

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